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YOUR REACTION TO YOUR CHILD’S DIAGNOSIS♦
INFORMATION FOR PARENTS
YOUR CHILD HAS BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH A SERIOUS EMOTIONAL DISORDER
Things in your family have not been going smoothly for some time. Your child or adolescent has
been behaving in ways that are troubling to you and/or to other people in his or her life. Children
and adolescents with serious emotional disorders show many of the following signs:
They may not be doing well in school, in dealing with peers, or in the family.
They may have withdrawn from everyone they care about, may be sad or angry all the
time, or may be out of control.
They may be behaving in a bizarre fashion.
These symptoms or signs are what led you to seek help from a mental health professional.
You have done the right thing. Seeking help is the first step in dealing with mental health
WHAT ARE SERIOUS EMOTIONAL DISORDERS IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS?
Serious Emotional Disorders are mental health problems that severely disrupt a child’s or
adolescent’s daily life and functioning at home, at school, or in the community. Seriously
emotional disorders affect one in twenty young people at any given time. Without help, these
problems can lead to school failure, alcohol and other drug abuse, family discord, violence, or
WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF SERIOUS EMOTIONAL DISORDERS?
It is not known what causes serious emotional disorders. Much research has been done in the past
twenty years that has shed light on this subject. It is known that both biology and the
environment can be involved. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances,
and damage to the central nervous system. Emotional disorders that are caused by biology are
referred to as neurological brain disorders.
Many environmental factors put children and adolescents at risk for developing emotional
disorders. Children who are exposed to violence, abuse, neglect, lead poisoning, or the loss of
loved ones through death, divorce, or broken relationships are more at risk of developing mental
health problems. Other risk factors include rejection because of religion, sexual orientation, race,
Much research still needs to be done to determine just how biology and the environment interact
to make mental health problems better or worse.
HOW DOES FINDING OUT ABOUT YOUR CHILD’S DIAGNOSIS AFFECT YOU?
Parents and other family members react to a child’s diagnosis many different ways. You may be
confused, and may be having many different feelings all at once. A diagnosis of mental illness or
serious emotional disturbances is something that will affect your child and family for a long
time, if not for the rest of your child’s life. Your family is beginning a long and perilous journey.
You may be experiencing feelings of grief and loss. All the feelings you are experiencing are
normal and are experienced by many parents in your situation.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross studied grief a number of years ago and discovered that their are five
specific types of feelings that people experience in this process. The first type is shock. We are
in a state of shock that the situation has occurred. We may not be able to talk about it. How could
this happen in our family? The second type is denial. Because the situation is frightening and the
things we will have to do to impact it are overwhelming, we try to tell ourselves that it isn’t true.
Maybe the doctor made a mistake. Our child’s condition is really not as bad as everyone says it
is. It is just a phase that our child will “get over.” The third type is depression. We are so sad that
our child has to endure the pain and suffering that a serious emotional disorder can bring. He or
she will not be able to do all the things that we had hoped for. The fourth type is anger. How
dare this happen to our family? How dare our child do this to us? Finally, we come to
acceptance. We acknowledge that our child has a serious emotional disturbance and we begin to
cope with it. It is only by accepting the situation that we can focus our energy on getting the right
services for our child. It is important to note that people experience the grieving process
differently. We do not always experience these different feelings in the order presented. Many
times, we move back and forth between them.
It is also normal to experience feelings of loss: the loss of your dreams for your child, the loss of
the ability to have normal family activities or vacations, the loss of friends and/or family
members who don’t understand, the loss of the relationship you envisioned for your children, if
there are siblings. In some cases, you may be worried for your family’s physical security.
The burden of care for your child can seem overwhelming. It may mean a great expenditure of
your family’s financial resources and will certainly mean a great expenditure of your family’s
emotional resources. You will need to figure out how to make sure that your other children do
not suffer for lack of care and attention because of the amount of energy it will take to care for
this child. You will also need to understand the systems that your child is involved with (i.e.
schools, doctors, mental health, etc.) and learn how to get those systems to provide the services
your child needs.
DEALING WITH STIGMA
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to the idea of mental illness and serious emotional
disorders. Much of this is a result of historical portrayals of people with mental illness as crazed
homicidal madmen, women with sixteen personalities, or people wandering around talking to
themselves. The media still portray people with mental illness this way sometimes, even though
we know that these portrayals are not accurate. You are very aware of this stigma, and the older
your child is, the more he or she is also aware of it. This may cause feelings of shame for you or
your child. You may not want to let people know about the situation. It is imperative, however,
that you talk to professionals in the mental health community and in the other systems your
child is involved with so that you can obtain the services you need for help with your child’s
and family’s problems.
Mental health problems affect more than 48 million Americans in the course of one year. With
the proper care and treatment, people can learn to cope and can go on to lead normal,
productive lives. Many people recover completely.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
As a parent, you have the privilege of being responsible for your child’s well being. One of
your primary jobs is to coordinate the services of all the different professionals who play a role
in your child’s life. In order for you to do this in the most effective way possible, you must take
care of yourself. You must realize that having a child or adolescent diagnosed with a serious
emotional disorder is a family crisis situation, and that you must rally your emotional and
physical energy to see them through it. The feelings you are feeling are normal. You must give
yourself permission to feel them and then you must mobilize your energy to help your child.
A child or adolescent in need of treatment or services and his or her family may need a plan of
care based on the severity and duration of symptoms. Optimally, this plan is developed with the
family, service providers, and a service coordinator, called a case manager. Whenever possible,
the child or adolescent is involved in the decisions. Tying together all the various supports and
services in a plan of care for a particular family is commonly referred to as a system of care. A
system of care is designed to improve the child’s ability to function in all areas of life—at home,
at school, and in the community.
SOME OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO ARE:
Get accurate information about your child’s emotional disorder from libraries, hotlines,
or other sources.
Ask questions about treatment and services.
Talk to other families in your community.
Find family network organizations.
If you are not satisfied with the mental health services your family is receiving, you
should discuss your concerns with the provider, ask for information, and, if necessary,
seek help from another provider.
TENNESSEE VOICES FOR CHILDREN
Tennessee Voices for Children is a parent support and advocacy organization for children and
youth with mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Tennessee Voices for Children believes
the following principles:
Every child’s mental health is important.
Many children have mental health problems. These problems are real and can be severe.
Mental health problems can be recognized and treated.
Carting families and communities working together can help.
If you would like more information, or to talk to someone about serious emotional disorders in
children or adolescents, you may call Tennessee Voices for Children at 615.269.7751 or toll free at
1.800.670.9882. You may visit our website at www.TNVoices.org or E-mail us
Adapted from DHHS Publication (SMA) 96-3111, Your Child’s Mental Health, from MHA publication, Stigma, and from a handout, Understanding the
Impact of Having a Child with a Serious Emotional Disturbance by Dee Morrison Meany, PAL Parent Support Network, Framingham, Massachusetts.